New exhibit disturbs the comfortable

The exhibit at the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. gallery features a shrine to Trayvon Martin created by Damian Paglia.
The exhibit at the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. gallery features a shrine to Trayvon Martin created by Damian Paglia. Photo by William Freedberg.

This Thursday at the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. gallery on Audobon street, photographer Hayward Gatling introduced “Disturbing the Comfortable,” a new exhibit featuring the works of more than 25 artists whose projects blur the lines between the visually appealing and emotionally disturbing.

The collection of 52 pieces on display features a mélange of photographs, paintings, sketches, performance art and wood sculpture, but is tied together by a clear underlying vision. Inspired by revolutionary graffiti artist Banksy’s quote, “Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,” Gatling said in a press release that he very consciously curated a show meant to unsettle its audience.

Debbie Hesse, artistic services and programs director at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, said she approached Gatling last month to discuss putting together the exhibition. An abstract nature photographer, Gatling is a member of the Visual Arts Advisory Group and has been involved with New Haven arts programming in the past, though “Disturbing the Comfortable” marks his first foray into curating.

Of the three galleries associated with the Arts Council, the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. gallery “gives people an opportunity to be more experimental,” Hesse said, and shows work that “might not be shown somewhere else.”

Feeding off this encouragement to experiment, Gatling contacted his wide network of artist friends in the Connecticut and New York area. Gatling chose some artists’ works over the course of 14 studio visits, while others created pieces specifically for the exhibition.

“Most of these people really live art,” Gatling said of contributors, many of whom he met through his Facebook page, Gatling Fine Arts.

Damian Paglia, a New Haven resident, said that it was Gatling’s vision that pushed him to create the most provocative installation of his career. His piece, a shrine to Trayvon Martin, is on display right upon exiting the elevator onto the gallery floor. Votive candles surround a pop art rendition of Martin’s hooded face, and the words “You Look Suspicious” are painted across the canvass. Complementing the painting is a performance artwork featuring a cross-legged member of the Yale Buddhist meditation group sitting on a pillow with his eyes closed, with a bouquet of flowers lying at his feet. Paglia explained that this union of painting and performance art is not only a shrine to Martin, but to other victims of violence in the New Haven community.

Mike Franzman pays further homage to New Haven’s fallen innocents with a striking black and white photo dedicated to Mitch Dubey, a 23-year-old community member who was killed in 2011 by an armed robber. Franzman’s photograph, captured at Dubey’s memorial service, hauntingly depicts a pair of hands holding buttons inscribed with the name “Mitch,” commemorating his life and recalling his tragic death.

Farther into the gallery, the power of the paintings lies in their contradictions. Charles Edward Dorris’ colorful portrait of a smiling gay couple provides a glimpse into the lives of two people in love, but its title “The Fallen” is a sobering reminder of their subsequent death from AIDS. An abstract rendition of Jackie Robinson’s famous gaze recalls not only his triumphs on the field, but the decades of discrimination he has come to represent.

“People were comfortable with baseball being all white,” said Katro Storm, the artist behind the piece. “Jackie Robinson disturbed that comfort.”

Other artists featured are Alan Neider, whose “Ad and Jewelry — 3” speaks to the perversity of the fashion industry; Mike Ross, whose portrayal of a seemingly innocuous ice cream truck is tainted by the sight of its lecherous driver; and Heidi Richard, who uses a photograph of a toilet brush washed up on the beach to comment on the disturbing state of our environment.

“Disturbing the Comfortable” is on display weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Nov. 1, and can be found on the second floor of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.

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